Friday, February 27, 2015

PR editors, are you too controlling?

PR team leads, you might in fact be part of the problem. If you do a lot of heavy editing of your team's work, you might be creating a monster. The more rewriting and tracking of changes you do, the more demoralized your direct-reports become -- but you won't know it because they will hide it from you.

And the more demoralized they become, the worse their work becomes. 

The deception isn't intentional. I hear it from them because I'm a third party. 

They aren't complaining when they tell me. They are searching for help or, in some cases, wondering if they should leave the PR field altogether. They respect you and want to please you.

Here are some things you can do to deflate the monster and grow your team's confidence and skill.

Not everyone can do No. 1 here, and that's fine. But you can certainly do numbers 2 and 3, and give the advice in No. 4. (Also, book me for the class called "Be Your Own Best Editor," and I will make many problems go away.) No. 5 is a more advanced technique for the most devoted of mentors.

1. Try side-by-side editing, if you can -- some people can't. This means the writer sits beside you as you review the document. You think out loud, so your team member can hear your thoughts immediately rather than try to guess later what you were trying to get at (when you made the entire page bleed).

It takes no extra time. Don't make an appointment to "walk through the changes." Instead, have your team member just sit there in real time, observing while it happens. Both of you will learn from this exercise, painlessly. 

You might notice that some of your edits are in fact arbitrary. For example, you might like the word "international'" better than "global," or "achieve" better than "accomplish." Or you might be moving commas around because you hear a pause in a different place. 

(Commas are not pauses, by the way. Our teachers told us that in elementary school when we were first learning to read and write. But it's not true. Every comma has an objective rationale. For more on that, look for a book called "The AP Guide to Punctuation," or look at the punctuation section of your AP Stylebook.)

If you notice that some of your changes are to make the writing "sound better," you might be an arbitrary editor. If this is you, remember that everyone's syntax is slightly different. Even if you are striving for a "consistent voice," you still need to allow for some variation. Let people be themselves; don't make them try to be you.

2. Step back and look for patterns. Rather than fixing every little thing and reacting one by one to each micro-episode of mental discomfort, you should distance yourself from the document. 

Use a highlighter (either digital or hard copy) to mark places where you find yourself reacting.

Then look only at the highlighted sections. Look for repetitive choices or a missing perspective.

Send a note with two or at most three questions or overarching directives that get your team member to think differently. Tell this person you want it back right away (within five minutes, or 10 or 20, if there's a lot to do -- but not "later" or the next day). 

Sit back and wait, and then be pleasantly surprised when you get back something great. The quality often ratchets up about 200 percent. The people on your team are smart, or you wouldn't have hired them.

3. Decide what really matters and let the rest go. Sometimes the problem is that you are very gifted. It may be that your team member will never be as good as you are.

You need to accept this reality. It's like the law of gravity or the sun rising in the East. You are very talented, and others won't ever quite catch up to you. 

If this is you, make a list of criteria that you can share with your team member. What are the two to five things this person must deliver? It might be something like this: business foresight, contrast and comparison for the purpose of pulling out insight, more white space (short sentences and paragraphs with subheads and bullets), the information needed for decision or action in the first or second sentence, precise verbs, ...

Once your team member can do everything on your list, you can add other items one at a time over time. You need let your team member evolve over time. This person can't be you. He or she will never be you.

Editors with this problem always say to me, "Yes, but I need to uphold quality standards for the client's sake." Yes, but some quality standards matter more than others. Choose. If you don't, everyone's life worsens.

If you are struggling with this one, ask yourself: "Will this edit alter our business outcome?"

If yes, honor it. If no, let it go or try the steps above.

4. Separate out proofreading as a final step, unrelated to content or wordsmithing. It's something to be done at the very end, and done surgically. That is, only remove what's objectively incorrect -- no finessing.

Senior people shouldn't be doing this particular task (proofreading). Try to reserve your comments and edits to meaty issues. Hold your team member accountable for client-readiness. 

If your team isn't up to speed on grammar, style, punctuation and proofreading, which need to be impeccable for credibility's sake, come up with a plan. 

This plan should be separate from routine editing incidents. Let your team member know that their improvement in this area is non-negotiable, and give them tools. 

Almost no one (0.5 percent?) leaves college knowing all they need to know to be good writers and editors. Most of us learn through work experience. Make it clear that this learning is to continue.

(I offer an AP style workshop specifically for tech PR and a class on the most common grammar mistakes among PR pros. The grammar class focuses on what people didn't know they didn't know. it's eye-opening.)

5. Sneak a rewrite but don't show it to anyone. This is the most difficult one, and it is time-consuming. It's a last resort for when you are overwhelmed by the awfulness of the document you're editing. 

When I don't know how to give guidance that honors the writer's autonomy and intelligence, I secretly do a rewrite of at least part of it. But I don't show it to anyone. Instead, I do a comparison and contrast to see what's different between the two. At that point, I can usually create a recipe for the writer to try to follow. By recipe, I mean the advice in No. 2, with a bit more. Usually, it's a perspective shift, not just the words on the page.

This last one is time-consuming but an investment in your having to edit less in the future.

Change is hard, I know. 

If you are the writer in this scenario, I hope this post will help you take the feedback you've been getting less personally and realize that some of the problem is in fact your supervisor's fault. 

If you are the editor, I hope this post helps you realize that your joy will rise as your team's competence rises, and that a red sea of tracked changes won't get you the results that you and everyone else need.